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This topic is adapted from the DESERT SPRINGS CHURCH YouTube channel.

The question is: how was it decided which ancient writings made it into the Bible? We call the standardized list of biblical books the “canon,” which means “rule” or “standard.” The process of determining these is called “canonization.” Why are some books considered to be inspired by God, and thus authoritative, while others are not?

[Related: How Did We Get the New Testament?]

The Early Development of the Bible

The history of canonization is long and complicated. It was finally resolved in the mid-16th century during the struggles between Catholicism and Protestantism. Does this mean we didn’t really have a Bible before the 1500s? No. By the middle of the second century, the writings of the early church leaders show that the vast majority of the New Testament canon was clearly in place. The four gospels and most of the writings of the apostle Paul were accepted as authoritative by the church at large very early in the process. The remaining debate surrounded the smaller epistles, which typically make a smaller contribution to overall gospel theology.

The Standard of Canonicity

One of the criteria of canonicity was apostleship. Books written by the apostles were quickly recognized as authoritative, because the apostles were the officially delegated representatives of Jesus Christ. But what about Luke? Luke was not an apostle. Nor was Mark. Those who weren’t apostles were eventually recognized as authoritative because they were part of the apostolic circle. Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. Mark was a protege of Peter. Thus their writings were seen as canonical.

Many people claim that important writings were left out of the Bible, because they were either lost or they didn’t represent the views of the institutional church. But these so-called “lost” gospels were not included because they failed to meet the tests that the canonical writings did – mainly the test of apostolic authorship.

[Related: Where Did We Get the Bible?]

Church and Canon

In the fourth century, the role of the official church became important. A list of canonical books was approved at a general council of the church. But did the church determine the canon? Why do people believe some books are inspired by God and some are not? Is it because the church said so at a council? Or are these writings canonical because they are, in fact, inspired by God? The church did not make these books authoritative. The church simply recognized and affirmed what was already true about them.

Why would a person today receive the Bible as canonical? At first, as a newer believer, it will probably be because the church says so. The church bears witness to the Bible’s authority, so we accept it. But over time, as a believer interacts with the Bible itself, the beauty, power and coherence of Scripture impresses itself on the reader, who comes to recognize the authority and inspiration of these writings for him or herself. Ultimately the Bible authenticates itself. It is the word of God whether anyone recognizes it or not.

[Related: Bible Basics]

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. Should every ancient religious text be given the same level of spiritual authority? Why or why not?
  4. Do you agree with the standard of apostleship, and why?
  5. Why do you think it took longer for certain books to be acknowledged as canonical?
  6. What other standards for recognizing divinely inspired writings make sense to you? Explain.
  7. Who decided what books should be included in the Bible? How did it happen?
  8. What does it mean that “the Bible authenticates itself”?
  9. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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